Where would you go to learn how to build out your next service van or organize the one you’re driving now? What would be your first step, and how would you know when it was done?
To find out, Business Fleet spoke with three working tradesmen who used experience, ingenuity and craftsmanship to build their ideal mobile offices.
Organization and Accessibility
Each tradesman uses tools and equipment unique to his field, but all three share a common mantra: Figure out what you need and how often you need it, and then find an appropriate home in the van. In each case, trial-and-error was the path to success.
“I just made it up as I went,” says Wayne Winton, owner of Tri-County Locksmith Service in Glenwood, Colo. “And if it fit, I did it, and if not, I moved it.”
Winton’s van, a 1999 Ford Econoline, replaced a Chevrolet Astro from which Winton was able to salvage a shelving unit but not much else. After lining the interior walls with plywood painted in Tufdek, a vinyl coating for outdoor decks, he installed the shelves, additional storage compartments and a wooden workbench.
With the big pieces installed, the rest fell into place: Larger tool bags are stored just inside the side door, upon which hangs a nuts-and-bolts bin. The back doors open to the workbench, a roadside emergency kit and, suspended from the rear driver’s-side door, Winton’s key-cutting machine. When the weather allows, he swings the door open and cuts keys outside to avoid filling the cargo hold with brass shavings.
Accessibility was the principal objective for Eric Sherman, an electrician with Western States Electrical Construction in Newport and Lincoln City, Ore. Both interior walls of his 2006 Ford E-250 cargo van are lined with shelves and bins.
With no need to perform work in the van — and a ladder rack and conduit box on the roof — he is able to keep the floor free of clutter. He mounted a frequently used stepladder to the ceiling, which also has hooks attached for a shovel, fish rods and a “hickey,” a tool used to bend conduit.
“I threw up the long skinny things,” Sherman says. “I had the shovel hanging downward until I banged my head on it.”
Because his daily workload could involve anything from getting a grocery store’s cold storage unit up and running to rewiring electrical panels at a wastewater plant, Sherman built side door-accessible holsters for his power drill, hand sanitizer and paper towel roll.
“The idea is I can reach the most common stuff from the doors,” he says, noting that, when it comes to organization, “I’m a bit obsessive compulsive.”
“You have to think, ‘When I get to the customer, what I am going to need to have handy?’” says Russell Mullis, a forklift field service technician with Charlotte, N.C.-based Lift-One LLC. “I have different bags for different jobs. … Grab it and go.”
A typical call for Mullis could involve a half-hour drive to a client’s warehouse and a long walk from the parking lot to the ailing forklift. After months spent making multiple trips back and forth to the van to grab tools and machinery, he carved out space in his late-model GMC Savana for a rolling cart.
“It was trial-and-error,” he says. “It’s about being more efficient.”
Planning and Discipline
None of the three tradesmen BF contacted mapped out their customizations before starting the job, but Sherman would advise first-timers to start with a rough sketch.
“I think the first thing is to figure out what you’re doing with the van and go from there. … Start doodling it out and laying it out. The ideal thing to do is make it kind of modular so it’s easy to move around.”
Once your van is arranged to your liking, he adds, you have to take time at the end of each workday to be sure everything goes back in its place to be sure you can find it the next day. “You can have a really cool setup, and it can get destroyed if you don’t keep on top of it. You have got to be disciplined.”
Sherman recommends avoiding prefabricated systems in favor of a custom setup. Winton applied the same logic to the steel bulkhead that divides his cabin from the cargo hold. Unsatisfied with the flimsy L-brackets that came with the kit, he reinforced the bulkhead by adding thicker brackets and framing it with angle iron.
“I know how much weight I roll around with,” Winton says. “People don’t realize that all that stuff in the back comes flying up if you come to an abrupt stop.”
Without a brick-and-mortar office to return to, Winton built his van to serve as a rolling workshop with all the comforts of home, including climate control. A radiant heater hangs from the safety cage on the passenger side, and he used expanding foam to fill in beam ridges and stuffed packing peanuts between his plywood bulkheads and the interior panels. The insulation helps maintain comfortable temperatures in the winter (and summer) months — and as an added bonus, it deadens cabin noise.
Winton says the plywood, Tufdek and multiple layers of insulation combine for “a very solid ride,” adding that all the planning, work, reinforcement and documentation were worth the effort. “If I put in the time now, then that will pay off in the future. … I took so much care in setting it up because it is my office. I’m in the van all day long.”